Stanley Bowie: Geochemist

Born: 24 March, 1917, in Bixter, Shetland. Died: 3 September, 2008, in Yeovil, aged 91.

PROFESSOR Stanley Hay Umphray Bowie FRS, FEng, FIMM, FMSA was a world authority on uranium geology and leader in the field of geochemistry and mineralogy. As a pioneer in the development of geological electronic instruments and techniques in opaque optical mineralogy, he was chosen by the US space agency, Nasa, in 1970 to be one of four principal investigators in the UK to examine the Apollo 11 and 12 lunar samples. In 1984, in a fitting accolade, a new mineral was named Bowieite in recognition of his research on opaque mineral identification.

A believer in the necessity of nuclear energy and convinced waste could be dealt with properly and safely, he resigned from the Radioactive Waste Management Advisory Committee in 1982 when geological investigations were stopped and the surface storage of waste fuel proposed. However, he was subsequently appointed chairman of the research advisory group on the safe disposal of radioactive waste and gave evidence to the House of Commons Environment Committee. He was still advising ministers and senior officials just before his death.

Born in Shetland, the son of Dr James Cameron Bowie, who was an ophthalmic surgeon in Aberdeen before becoming a GP in Shetland. Bowie was greatly influenced by his upbringing on Shetland, and the geological world must thank the teacher who took his primary school class out on a sunny day and showed them perfect garnet crystals; he decided there and then to become a geologist.

He graduated from Aberdeen University in 1941 with 1st class honours and the Mitchell Prize for best honours geology student. Employment as a surveyor at Newbattle Colliery, near Edinburgh, and studies of iron ore deposits on Skye were interrupted by the war and he was commissioned as a flying officer, meteorological branch, in Bomber Command. He became a lucky talisman for the first B17 squadron based in this country, as no-one was lost when he gave the pre-flight forecast. More than 60 years later he was still enthusiastically providing accurate local forecasts.


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After the war he joined the atomic energy division of what is now the British Geological Survey (BGS), where he met his future wife, Helen Pocock, draughtswoman and artist, and the daughter of Dr Roy Woodhouse Pocock FGS.

Shortly after joining, Bowie provided evidence that the Piltdown Man was a forgery by measuring the gamma activity of mammalian teeth from the main Villafranchian localities and confirming the Piltdown specimens were not from an English deposit.

He was promoted to chief geologist in 1956 and became consultant to the UK Atomic Energy Authority on uranium supply. The support of Lord Hinton of Bankside, Lord Marshall of Goring, Sir John Hill and staff at Harwell led to the development of numerous electronic instruments for the detection and assessment of uranium and other elements. Bowie also developed pioneering techniques and designed instruments for the identification of opaque minerals and he was in the team given the Queen's Award for Technological Achievement in 1990 for development of an inductively coupled mass spectrometer.

He travelled in the United States, Canada, Africa, Europe, Asia and Australia, visiting countless mines and assessing mineral occurrences. In 1948 he produced An Index of Radioactive Minerals – a classified document, which remained so until 1976. This knowledge caused great concern for his safety when in 1968 he was staying in Wenceslas Square, Prague, for the International Geological Congress and found himself caught up in the Russian invasion.


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Holding fellowships and high office in a number of societies, he was president of the Institution of Mining and Metallurgy (1976-7), vice-president of the Geological Society (1972-4), fellow of the Mineralogical Society of America (1963) and fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (1970). He was modestly surprised when he was awarded the fellowship of the Royal Society in 1976. He was proud of his involvement as a founder fellow, along with Prince Philip, of the Fellowship of Engineering (1976). Academic links included being a visiting professor of applied geology at the University of Strathclyde 1968-85.

He instigated a geochemical survey of Great Britain which, although designed for mineral exploration, has had important applications in agriculture, health and the environment.

After he resigned from the BGS in 1977 he worked as an independent consultant for the European Economic Commission, Hunting Geology & Geophysics, British Nuclear Fuels and the Central Electricity Board. Increasingly he devoted his energies to the preservation of Shetland's rare breeds of farm animals. The convener of the Shetland Crofters Commission said: "I believe his contribution to Shetland kye (cattle), Shetland sheep and oo (wool) is much too great not to be celebrated."

When told that the ambulance was on its way to take him to hospital, he responded: "I think you will have to cancel it. I have got far too much to do." He died suddenly shortly afterwards. His wife predeceased him by just four weeks and he is survived by his two sons.


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